Flirting with Dissolution

Mark Ford

  • Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club: Poems 1975-90 by August Kleinzahler
    Faber, 82 pp, £8.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 571 20428 7

The poems in Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club are taken from August Kleinzahler’s first six publications. All were small press books with relatively limited circulations – the first, The Sausage Master of Minsk (1977), was hand-set by the publishers and the poet himself on a platen press in Montreal. Until the early 1990s, when he was taken on by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US and Faber in Britain, Kleinzahler’s work was not much known beyond the alternative poetry world, and in a postscript to this selection, written at an airport hotel in Phoenix, he ponders his transition from the shadows to the bright lights of the professional poetry scene:

I am on my way back from a writers’ festival in the hills, en route to a semester-long job teaching poetry in a graduate writing programme. From the deeply silly to the sillier still. It is only very recently that I’ve begun participating in these sorts of things. Even a couple of years ago it would never have occurred to anyone to invite me. I was not of that world, nor would I have chosen to be. If there was a world I identified with, however marginally, or at least had some association with while writing these poems, it would probably have been the small-press world and its fugitive publications … The audience was only a handful, mostly other writers. There would be no reviews or prizes or job offers. No agents ringing up. No photo on the dust-jacket looking earnest or seductive. There was no dust-jacket. I did it because I had to. It’s all more complicated than that, but there you have it. I had no idea of the consequences of the decision I had made.

Kleinzahler was born in 1949 and grew up in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across from the George Washington Bridge. He went to college in Wisconsin, but dropped out and drifted a while, before enrolling at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, where his favourite 20th-century poet, Basil Bunting, happened to be teaching that year. Afterwards he worked at a variety of jobs (cab-driver, lumberjack, locksmith) in a variety of places (Alaska, Montreal, Portugal) but in 1981 settled in San Francisco, where he met Thom Gunn, to whom his most recent book, Green Sees Things in Waves (1998), is dedicated.

Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club is divided into two sections, ‘East’ and ‘West’, though a number of poems also cross-cut from coast to coast. The air outside Shop-Rite Liquor, on a gritty Jersey strip, is better, on summer evenings, than the ‘Marin hills at dusk/lavender and gold/stretching miles to the sea’. ‘Indian Summer Night: The Haight’ juxtaposes various distant street noises – a growling bus, a stand-up comic performing in a nearby café, gusts of laughter – with a childhood memory from Fort Lee:

The summer my sister worked at Palisades

Park

I’d stay awake till midnight,

listening.

When the breeze in the maples was right

you could hear her

my sister,

over the loudspeaker a quarter mile away

telling barkers, patrons and freaks,

everybody,

the last voice before the lights went out,

Thank you. Good night.

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